What is Diarrhea? | Symptoms, Types, Causes, Diagnosis, Treatment, Diet Prevention & More!

Medically reviewed by John A. Flores M.D., M.S. March 21, 2024| Written by Abdul Jabbar

What is Diarrhea? | Symptoms, Types, Causes, Diagnosis, Treatment, Diet Prevention & More!

Have you ever had those days when everything looked so perfect? You wake up feeling great, ready to take on routine tasks. But then, out of nowhere, you start to feel a rumble in your stomach. Before you even know it, you’re rushing to the bathroom back to back. 

Yes, we are talking about nothing other than diarrhea — an unexpected guest that shows up unannounced and disrupts your plans. We all experience this condition called“the runs”in some phase of life — turning our fun days into not-so-great ones. 

But you’re not alone here. In fact, an estimated2 billion cases of this disease occur every year. 

In developing countries, about 1.9 million children under 5 years die from diarrhea. This is what makes it the5th leading cause of unfortunate death!

The most commonly encountered causes ofdiarrhea are infectious, such as parasites, viruses, and bacteria.

Generally, severe diarrhea lasts 2 days or so, but continuous watery and loose bowel movements can be a problem. So, if such a condition persists beyond 2 weeks, then there must be something serious going on. 

In this article, we’ll talk about the signs and findings of diarrhea, its causes, treatment, diagnosis, significant types, prevention, and more. 

Signs and Findings

Diarrhea is not only about frequent trips to the bathroom. It is often associated with other characteristic signs and findings.

Here’s what you need to look out for:

  • Fever
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Bloating
  • Belly pain or cramps
  • Dizziness or light-headedness
  • Frequent watery feces
  • Urgency forbowel movement

These are mild symptoms that might vanish after a day or two. However, it’s important to consult your doctor if you experience severe symptoms, such as : 

  • Mucus in the stool
  • Repeated vomiting
  • Inability to increase fluid intake 
  • Painful passage of stool
  • Absent or reduced urination
  • Blood in the stool
  • Extreme fever or chills (temperature greater than 38 ℃)

If you’ve been suffering from chronic medical conditions already, like heart disease, even a single day of diarrhea can throw a wrench in the works. So, it's something to take seriously in those situations.

What Are The Types of Diarrhea?

Depending on the underlying functional irregularity, there are 4 kinds of diarrhea. Understanding these types helps in dealing with them appropriately. 

1.Osmotic Diarrhea

First, we have osmotic diarrhea, which appears out of nowhere and leaves watery stools in its wake. In this type, water absorption in the intestines is hindered due to excessive solutes in the lumen - leading to diarrhea straightaway. 

Normally, it may be caused by the following situations:

  • Malabsorption: Although the most noticeable malabsorption is the incapability to absorb particular carbohydrates, there are other types, too. 

Lactose intolerance affects humans the most, caused by the lack of the enzyme lactase. Consequently, the unabsorbed lactose is absorbed into a large lumen, fermented and producing gas.

  • Ingestion of a poorly absorbed substrate: Some divalent ions and carbohydrates, such as Epsom salt (MgSO4), sorbitol, and mannitol, as well as specific antacids (MgOH2), may absorb poorly and inappropriately, leading to the condition of diarrhea. 

This type of diarrhea resolves once your body removes whatever substance has been causing it. Therefore, stay hydrated and eat soft foods such as rice or bananas to help your tummy feel better.

2. Secretory Diarrhea

Oftencaused by bacteria or viruses, it makes your intestines release more salt and water than your belly can absorb. Thiswater balance dysregulation overwhelms the gut’s absorptive capacity — ultimately leading to increased loss of water in the stool and diarrhea.

The main culprit of this kind of diarrhea is cholera, which produces toxins. Still, apart from this, some other agents also lead to this condition. These are: 

  • Hormones secreted by particular tumors
  • Certain laxatives
  • Organic toxins
  • Specific metals and plant products (i.e., mushroom toxins, insecticides, caffeine, arsenic)
  • Different drugs like heartburn medications, antacids, and antibiotics

To flush out the bad stuff and return to a routine, you must rest and eat bland foods like crackers and toast.

3. Infectious or Inflammatory Diarrhea

According to the National Library of Medicine, infectious diarrhea is a worldwidehealth problem. Research has offered new insights into the diarrhea mechanism caused by pathogens and nasty germs divided into invasive, inflammatory, and noninflammatory.

All three groups can cause diarrheal syndromes, i.e., inflammatory and noninflammatory diarrhea, which irritates and inflames your intestines. 

When this type of diarrhea takes place, it can make you feel feverish and weak. 

Possible sources of infectious or inflamed diarrhea include:

  • Undercooked meats, eggs, or fish
  • Exposure to contaminated drinking
  • Contaminated vegetables or fruits
  • Recent antimicrobial therapy
  • Unpasteurized fluids
  • Consumption of shellfish
  • Contact with feces or infected animals

It’s important to see a doctor if you’re suffering from this type, who may prescribe proper medication to fight off the dangerous germs. 

Meanwhile, stick to digestible foods and drink plenty of fluids to recover fast!

4. Motility-related Diarrhea

Motility–related diarrhea is when your intestines move too quickly without giving your body enough time to absorb nutrients and water effectively. 

In a nutshell, it is caused by therapid food movement through your intestines (hypermotility). Colonic motor and gastrointestinal motor disturbances may alsocontribute to diarrhea.

It's like a roller coaster ride for your gut, causing watery stools and often stomach cramps. 

This type of diarrhea often leads to severe stomach cramps, and it can also be a symptom of underlying conditions likeIBS (irritable bowel syndrome).

Treatment for motility in chronic diarrhea includes correction of underlying abnormalities like:

  • Antibiotics
  • Specific food avoidance
  • Anti-inflammatory agents
  • Cholestyramine
  • Octreotide 

To manage motility-related diarrhea, try to eat small meals, reducestress, and avoid dairy products or caffeine.

What Causes Diarrhea?

Persistent and acute diarrhea may havecauses different from chronic ones. In other words, this disease can be caused due to several reasons. In the United States,mild cases of diarrhea are caused by bacteria like Shigella, Salmonella, Escherichia coli, and Campylobacter.

The usual suspects that cause diarrhea worldwide include:

1.Chronic Infections

A history of antibiotic use or traveling can be a clue in chronic diarrhea. Different parasites and bacteria can be another major cause.Microbes like parasitic organisms, viruses, and bacteria are responsible for this severe infection.

2.Viral & Parasitic Infections

Viral hepatitis, rotavirus, and norovirus can also cause diarrhea - often spreading through polluted water or contaminated food. In addition, sneaky parasites like Cryptosporidium and Giardia lamblia can also be transmitted through poisonous food and play the villain in this tale.

3.Spicy Foods

Spices that contain harmful chemical compounds, like Capsaicin, can cause a burning, warm sensation upon contact with body tissues. As diarrhea boosts the overall digestive processes, this ingredient from spicy meals may leave your body before finally breaking down.

4.Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)

IBD is among one of themost common causes of diarrhea. Inflammatory Bowel Disease describes either Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. Both underlying conditions may lead to blood in the stool and inflammation in the digestive tract.


Medications, particularly antibiotics, can highly disrupt the balance of the gut microbiome - leading to watery stools and other diarrhea symptoms as a side effect.

6.Physical Trauma

People going through physical trauma suffer not just outside, but the inner digestive system may also get disturbed. As a result, foods may not break down completely when they leave your body. 

7.Cancer-related Causes

Some cancer treatments can alsolead to diarrhea. Radiation, immunotherapy, and chemotherapy can all upset your stomach's equilibrium. It can also occur due to surgery when specific intestinal parts are removed. In addition, neoplastic diarrhea is linked with several gut cancers.

Once you've caught on to the symptoms, the next step you need to take is to look forward to its diagnosis for further confirmation.


Physicians utilize various tools and techniques to reveal the main culprit behind your signs and symptoms. Theinvestigation starts with a thorough medical history by querying about potential triggers, recent travels, current medications, and other medical conditions.

These questions may also include: 

  • How frequent are your stools?
  • If you have been vomiting?
  • When did the symptoms of diarrhea start?
  • How much stool is there?
  • Whether the stools contain pus?
  • If there is any dehydration?

Upon physical examination, patients may have lab tests to check urine and blood.

For a successful treatment plan, you willundergo additional tests, which may include:

    • Stool Studies: This test checks for abdominal bacteria in your digestive tract causing diarrhea and related issues. A small stool sample is taken and sent to the laboratory for examination.
    • Sigmoidoscopy:In this test, your healthcare provider checks your large intestine, looking for an anatomical or inflammatory reason for diarrhea. 
  • Colonoscopy: Your large intestine’s strength will be determined. Moreover, it can help evaluate abnormal growths, bleeding, sores (ulcers), and redness. Your doctor can see the colon's lining through this device and take a biopsy to test it.
    • Blood Tests:Blood and imaging tests serve as useful tools in the detective’s kit, further confirming the diagnosis and ruling out other potential possibilities. 
    • Fasting Tests:You can determine whether you’re food intolerant after these tests. This study can identify which foods are associated with allergies that can weaken your immune system.
    • Hydrogen Breath Test: Determines if you arelactose intolerant; after you consume a lactose-rich drink, the amount of hydrogen in your breath is measured. Breathing out excessive hydrogen shows that you are not absorbing lactose properly.

    Through these tests and other clues, healthcare providers can effectively pinpoint the cause of your diarrhea to recommend the most helpful treatment plan.

    What is the Difference Between Diarrhoea and Diarrhea?

    The difference between “diarrhoea” and “diarrhea” lies in spelling conversations in different English-speaking regions. In America, people spell "diarrhea" with an "a." But when we talk further about Britain, it transforms into "diarrhoea," spelled with an "oe."Clear enough?

    No matter how you spell or pronounce it, it explains the same uncomfortable condition where you have watery and loose stools. 

    How Do You Cure Diarrhea?

    Most cases of mild diarrhea clear independently in a couple of days without needing treatment. However, if a person has diarrhealasting for over 7 days, then one should promptly consult a doctor and take steps to treat it.

    In anotherstudy, children are immediately treated if they have had over 5 bouts of diarrhea within 24 hours. So, when your symptoms start, you must keep a tab and see a doctor if your condition deteriorates. 

    Here are some simple steps to help you feel better fast!

    1.Hydration Is The Key

    Diarrhea causes your body to lose a lot of water with every trip to the bathroom, which can cause severedehydration in toddlers and older people. Therefore, you need to keep drinking fluids throughout the day. 

    Studies have revealed that over-the-counter rehydration solutions and sports drinks are equally beneficial for adults with acute diarrhea.

    Avoid drinking soda, milk, caffeinated drinks, or alcohol for hydration, as they’re your worst enemies in this condition.

    2. Over-the-counter Drugs

    With your physician’s supervision, many over-the-counter medications can assist with diarrhea if your symptoms aren’t severe. 

    Some common over-the-counter medications involve:

    • Loperamide (Imodium)
    • Bismuth subsalicylate (Kaopectate™ and Pepto-Bismol™)

    But don’t use these drugs without consulting your doctor if you have had diarrhea for over 14 days.

    What’s more, the listed medications are not recommended for children, especially those under 3 months.

    Apart from this, you need to seek medical help if you have a fever, bloody diarrhea, intense abdominal pain, or other symptoms.

    3.Prioritize Resting

    Your body needs proper time to heal, so resting is essential to recover from diarrhea, and avoid all strenuous activities until you get better again.

    4.Foods to Eat

    Diarrhea reducesappetite, so you must be considerate about your meals. 

    Choose low-fiber foods that can make your stools firm. Considering theBRAT diet (B: Banana, R: Rice, A: Applesauce, T: Toast) will also help.

    You can add fish, chicken, lean beef, and potatoes for huge relief.

    5.Avoid Drinks And Foods That Give You Gas

    Try avoiding the following foods: 

    • Fatty foods, like gravies sauces, and fried items
    • Spicy meals
    • Brussels sprouts
    • Carbonated beverages
    • Beans
    • Dairy products
    • Juices with laxative effects
    • Alcoholic drinks

    Again, if your symptoms don’t improve within 48 hours, you should see a healthcare professional immediately. 

    How Can Lifestyle and Diet Prevent Diarrhea?

    Making diet and lifestyle changes may reduce the risk of diarrhea and enhance the quality of your life. Here are a few tips:

    1. Increase the intake of fruits, such as berries, bananas, apples, and vegetables, such as carrots, sweet potatoes, and broccoli. 
    2. Drink plenty of liquids, including broth, juices, and water. 
    3. Evidence suggests that something as simple as a hand-washing practice can considerably reduce diarrhea rates by aboutone-third.
    4. Avail improved sanitation facilities to lessen the risk of chronic diarrhea in children by up to36%.
    5. Don’t eat dairy products, high-fiber foods, highly seasoned foods, or fatty foods for some days.
    6. If you’re anIBS patient with diarrhea, be careful about ingesting meals that stimulate your intestinal tract or worsen the IBS symptoms.
    7. Don’t forget to drink 9-10 glasses of fluids daily.
    8. According to the World Health Organization, ORS (Oral Rehydration Solution) can safely treat more than 90% of mild diarrhea cases. So, make sure that you add this to your routine, too.
    9. For additional perks, try toast, eggs, chicken, rice, and soda crackers.
    10. Consider taking probiotics and multivitamins to boost your nutrition.
    11. Take breaks and eat short portions of meals throughout the day rather than 3 big meals.
    12. Cut out milk or other dairy products from your routine, which can cause bloating and gas.
    13. Take a few days off from work for proper self-care and fast recovery —resting can be an absolute game-changer!

    Having said all that, it’s a good idea to consult a dietitian before making significant changes to your diet for chronic diarrhea.

    What Foods Prevent Diarrhea?

    In malnourished children and people with weak immune systems, even brief diarrhea episodes can seriously impact nutritional status. Research takes the view that experiencing diarrhea frequently can limit time for recovery & catch-up overall growth between episodes. The same study indicates that thedietary reserves of children are sufficient to offset the destructive effects of this disease. 

    Yes, this is how crucial your diet boosts your will to fight!

    So, suppose you consume quality and nutritional foods. In that case, it will lower your chances of diarrhea and reduce your recovery time if you contract the disease.

    Several effective diets based on staples are ideal choices fordiarrhea dietary management. So, keep the following foods in your diet for the maximum prevention of diarrhea: 

    • White Rice helps in binding stools and alleviating diarrhea.
    • Bananasare easily digestible and help replenish potassium lost during diarrhea.
    • Toast helps absorb fluid, producing firmer stools, and also reduces visits to the bathroom.
    • Unsweetened Applesauce is easy to digest and stops watery stools.
    • Oatmealis easy on the stomach. Also, it provides soluble fiber, which can bulk up your stool.
    • Unsweetened Yogurtprovides probiotics that are crucial to restoring the balance of good bacteria in the gut.
    • Boiled Potatoesare easy on the stomach and replenish potassium and other nutrients lost during diarrhea.

    While adding these meals to your diet, ensure you don’t overlook the factors that trigger your symptoms, like certain foods orreactions to antibiotic medicine.

    In the meantime, avoiding high-fiber, fatty, and spicy foods is crucial, as these can worsen diarrhea conditions. After all, theprevention of diarrhea relies on the underlying cause. 


    Diarrhea can lead to severe dehydration, which can be life-threatening if left untreated; this is especially dangerous in older adults, infants, and those with weak immune systems. If you're experiencing chronic diarrhea, it is advisable to consult with the doctor. So they canprescribe medications to treat this condition.

    That said, you can prevent this uncomfortable condition with proper care and a healthy lifestyle. After that, you'll recover fast even if you contract the disease. 

    I hope this article helped you understand your symptoms and how to prevent diarrhea.